Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Uruwashi, Kanda (うるわし 神田)

Uruwashi. How did I miss this place? I've been on this street a dozen, a hundred times. The sign is big. The entrance is inviting, or at least the door opens and you can then go down the spare, elegant staircase and follow the tiled, cobbled path into the genkan.

It's this kind of place - fresh flowers inside the door let you know they're aiming for something special.

It's this kind of place too - kimono-clad fresh flowers serve groups of old men in suits. This is largely an entertainment venue, and the offerings are priced and structured to suit. Not in a bad way though - when these men received their bowls and said 'Wow', I looked over at the deep 14-inch lacquer bowls containing their mixed lunches and thought to myself 'Yeah, wow.'

As such, I got the signature Uruwashi set. This crappy photo at least gives you some idea of the breadth and diversity you get for your Y2.3k (I know, I know. But those guys above spent something like Y4k on their bowls - I told you, it's an entertainment place. They seemed sure I'd need a receipt for my lunch.).

Well, clockwise, you have something like duck and omelette, tempura, grilled fish, grilled beef, sashimi, and boiled vegetables (in light starch sauce, not clear soup). There were a few minor standouts, but you (and your guests) are really meant to be impressed more by the variety and size. I was duly overwhelmed.

My imaginary guests, less so.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Margaux tonkatsu, Akihabara (丸五)

Ominous, the sky. I was heading up to Akihabara to buy a radioactive giant saber-toothed turtle action figure (Americans make the wierdest requests of people coming home on vacation) and figured I'd combine it with lunch.

I also combined it with a picture of the 'Loving Hut' truck, which is just like that Natural Hand place, only it's a restaurant chain run by religious zealots.

No religious zealot would want to be within 100 yards of Margaux (it's 丸五, but I somehow not you're going to let me slide. I'm hoping people looking for killer pork-stewed-in-Bordeaux recipes will accidentally stumble on this.). The twin smells of pork and fry permeate the neighborhood.

Enter the restaurant. Sit at the burnished wood counter, glowing with the polish of countless post-tonkatsu cleanings. (That was today's Kleindl moment right there.)

You'll be in good company - the executive looking at his watch and waiting to eat at speed, the hip designer who contemplates his meal like a modern graphic, the retired boxer quietly sipping gently-warmed sake and whiling away the afternoon.

The counter will present its own distractions. A quality tonkatsu restaurant will offer you a selection of fine salt, a ramekin of pickles, a beaker of velvety sauce...and a small jewel case of combustible Japanese mustard. These are all present and accounted for.
[Eek, I'm going the Full Kleindl here, aren't I.]
Getting back to reality, this is a decent katsu. I ordered tanpin, which meant I was able to forgo rice and soup and save Y400 and some carbs - good deal as far as I'm concerned. The meat is the thing here. Once in a while people will talk about the 'sweetness of pork', and this, I think, is why. However they pre-cut the meat, and the fry is lackluster. So the meat is wonderful, but it's a mystery to me why this should be ranked the same as Yamaichi on the Tabelogz (#9, #10 in Tokyo). You could warm up with this place, but once you understand the genre enough to be ready for the big leagues, that's your stadium.

This place is a national treasure though. It's so famous, and so well-regarded, that they actually don't like foreigners to find out about it. When I came out, the black-van boys were already waiting. I confess I was nervous as I took this picture, and pedaled away as fast as I could.

Journalistic integrity, all that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Yoshioka, Kyobashi (地酒屋 よしおか)

Yooooooshta. It's official. I have now been to all of the good sake places in Tokyo. Think you know another? Nope. Not good. This is the last one. Boo-yah!

Well good, I'm glad we could all agree on that. And how could you not agree that it's a good place? Look at that banner! It's screaming "Good sake here." Another tip - if you can figure out how to work the ancient elevator, take it to the top floor, get out, and walk up another level to the bizarre, time-out-of-mind store that takes up that partial floor and a detached shed on the roof. Kyobashi is a bit dead, being between Nihonbashi and Ginza, but it hides a bunch of quirky little restaurants and galleries.

Yoshioka's interior, I'm sorry to say, is one of the least charming I know of. Part of it is the lighting, part of it is the sparity of concept...the racks of empties and the fridge of fulls are of course always welcome as design elements, but a throw rug or a few flowers would go a long way.

Food is quite solid - any place that starts you off with a scoop of tofu that they made fresh that day is a place that's cool with me. It's a good thing.

Damn the shadows, full speed ahead. If you blow this up, I think it'll be big enough for you to appreciate the magnificence of it. Honestly, any list that has both Furosen and Senkin is a list that's going to impress me, but have you seen 6 varieties of Jikon on a list lately?

Over the course of two nights this week (yes, I liked it that much), the owner recommended a number of oddities - the Ouroku from Shimane was outstanding, the Asahi Wakamatsu from Tokushima was bizarre (more like a distilled liqueur), and the Yorokobi Gaijin, Jikon, Tomonori, and everything else we tried were fresh and delicious.

At one point I teased the owner, a self-described 'sake nerd' despite his tough aspect and sorta surfer demeanor, about the inclusion of Dassai in his list - "You can get that anywhere!" He was all over that challenge, pointing out immediately that if you read the rest of the description you'll see it's not normal Dassai 50, it's actually raw and unfiltered. Mea culpa. He's a good guy for a conversation and a recommendation.

He pours a good cup too. Did you see the extensive columns on the right of the menu? You can order by the glass (pictured, 120ml), 1-go, 1.5, 2, whatever, really. 120ml is a great size; I sort of admire places that will pour you tasting sets in 50 or 60 ml glasses, but it's not enough to taste properly. 100 or 120 is about right for me (and 180, 1-go is certainly too much for a wide and varied evening, as I've demonstrated when I've tried to be wide and varied at places that pour a generous go.).

The fish is a little expensive, with the sampler set being Y3.3k. The quality was very good though, especially on the two separate dishes at the bottom (first visit). Again, any place that will serve uncooked cherry blossom shrimp can't be all bad. They're briefly seasonal and not very common in any case; I have the impression that most of the catch is just thrown on tarps to dry in the sun.

The rest of the food is solid to very good, and a bit puzzlingly diverse. The chef is clearly a guy who knows what's what, as does the owner. You have to respect him for knowing enough to stick to his knitting and not play in the kitchen, spending the money to hire a specialist.

Going L-R and down, there's that tofu again, then dried, grilled firefly squid (nice except the hardened pips of the eyeballs). The hot caprese is quirky - a grilled tomato topped with cheese and surrounded with pesto, while the pork-wrapped asparagus was so nice I got it twice. The beef tendon was delicious - meltingly soft, and mostly meat instead of actual tendon. The grilled (Seki) mackerel looks like hell but tastes great, and the fried chicken was generously portioned and a masterpiece of frying. Finishing with the grilled rice balls is a typical Woodsman move, and these were nicely moistened with soy sauce and grilled very appropriately. It's a fine balance.

This place is finely balanced too, and if you stay balanced when you go, you'll feel fine.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bario ramen, Ochanomizu (らーめん バリ男)

Hola pendejo. Oye como va and all that. I'd like to write a whole Spanish-themed post, but that's about as far as I'll get. Busy days.

This place hasn't been open for long, and I can't help feeling they're riding the crest of a crashing wave - surely brick-heavy, artery-clogging ramen can't have long to run as the leading genre?  Well, while it's here it's good.

Nothing going on inside - just a bunch of young guys in shop t-shirts with Superman-style logos, turning out big bowls of ramen. The interior is actually kinda well-decorated considering what genre of ramen they're going for...

because it's Jiro-style, where the soup is thick and fatty, the noodles are tough and chewy, the pork is big and rough, and the bean sprouts make a mountain on top of the bowl.

Incidentally, howzabout those sprouts? How did the manly men who love Jiro ramen decide that a big pile of boiled bean sprouts was the perfect way to add height and volume? It's a mystery.

The soup is quite good, the noodles are quite good...the pork deserves special mention. In a genre where everyone is trying to look for an edge to make their product more intense, this pork has a black exterior from being...soaked in soy sauce. It's a little much.

The sign would be a little much if you followed it too, because it says something like "You've gotta put in garlic. One spoonful is for pretty boys, two spoonfuls for men, and three spoonfuls for MANLY MEN."

They get some good height here. Quality. Respect.

A quick shot of the noodles and egg. You know, I'm not sure I've had a bad Jiro-style ramen. This one seemed pretty good, about like all the others. I got the last seat, and by the time I finished people were waiting outside. Not like the 20-30 people at the Jimbocho Jiro branch nearby, but solid for a faceless little place turning out bowls in the mid-afternoon.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Inoue ramen, Tsukiji (ラーメン 井上)

Recognize this place? That's right, it's the old-fashioned standing ramen in the restaurant row on the outside of Tsukiji Market that always has the long lines. Over the course of our visits to the market, someone has gotten increasingly vocal about trying it...and realistically, I don't need a lot of convincing, do I?

Do you think it's weird to eat ramen at Tsukiji? I wouldn't worry about it. The sushi restaurants are really there for the tourists; the workers don't want to look at fish all day and then eat sushi, you know?

I'd like to assume this is Inoue san, the man who makes the magic happen. This place has been popular forever, and while he may have been pleasant once upon a time, he's just focused on getting the food out now. All the staff are that way.

The customers are all focused on getting the food down - you just pay, get your noodles, and walk a few paces to the high tables set up next to the street. Street food is rare in Japan these days, so I wonder if it's also nostalgic for old people to stand outside and eat.

Especially when the noodles are this nostalgic. This has a serious "hasn't changed for 50 years" aesthetic, with the clear Tokyo-style soup, chewy, curly noodles, standard boiled pork, and vegetable toppings. The only hint of originality is the pea shoots included in the topping, but who needs originality? When the recipe is right, you just keep making it.

This would be a nice place to start a ramen quest if you were on vacation in Tokyo (I mean, assuming you didn't want to go a few stations east to Bigakuya, which is the same style but, as the name implies, is clearly the result of careful study and dedicated attempts to achieve perfection.). I see from the comments on Tabelog that Japanese people think this is weak and a little boring (one comment implied this was so weak you could still appreciate the delicate flavors of sushi afterward). So sad that they've forgotten their simple, humble roots, isn't it?

By the way, we did do some shopping at the market. You can't quite tell what this is from the picture, so I'll just tell you. The pasta is done with a cream sauce that includes half a box of Hokkaido sea urchin. The disc on top is a first for me (meaning I've never seen it in a restaurant - I'm the only person weird enough to try it?). Other than the sea urchin, we bought 2 pounds of fish liver at the market (from the most famous area, Yamaguchi), made pate out of it, and that's a disc of seared fish liver pate on top. The whole time, I was thinking "This one's for Uncle N!"

The word you're looking for here is 'zeitaku', I think.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fah Sai, Jimbocho

I spent the longest time looking at this ramen place called Satou on Yasukuni Dori in the heart of the Jimbocho sporting goods area - "Have I gone here yet? It looks familiar. And I don't think it was that good."

Ahhh, the dilemmas that haunt my lunch. It turns out that the ramen place looks nothing like the mediocre one I was thinking of except for the size and shape of the counter.

But in the course of dithering, I noticed there was a Thai place right next to it. Problem solved. The first Thai place I loved in Tokyo was the Tinun in Jimbocho (I can't believe I've never blogged Tinun. It's wacky considering that I've been to branches in Ginza, Kinshicho, Jimbocho, Yotsuya and maybe Omotesando. I still recommend it despite the profusion of copycats - all of which are perfectly acceptable.) so I'm partial to Thai around here.
Especially when the staff is all Thai and says "crap" all the time.

Eating solid lunches is a theme recently, so I got one of the big sets (less than Y1k, good volume value). On the right is a normal ga prao sorta thing but dull without basil. They were saving up the flavor for the noodles, which was a mix of fried and boiled ramen-like noodles, curly, thin, and eggy, in a curried coconut soup. Tons of coriander on top. Constant smiles while eating. So delicious. OMG.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Manten curry, Jimbocho (ライスカレーまんてん)

Yo, wassup man...ten. You wouldn't think that one of Tokyo's most famous curry places would be a dirty little storefront in a thin alley at the north end of Jimbocho. Come to think of it, you probably should expect that - the area is famous for curry, and as far as I'm concerned, the dirtier the better.

Not that it's dirty, per se, it's just a well-used space serving an inherently greasy product. Reminds me of a teppanyaki place - it's a greasy food, so they take pains to ventilate as well as making things out of marble and steel and other materials that can be scrubbed until they bleed. Here, they're giving everything a good wipe. It feels well-used.

They also serve up a cup of the cleaning dregs when you sit down. Why, I don't know. But everyone gets a small mug of this coffee, which was iced (I imagine it's seasonal). Coffee and curry is a classic combination in Japan (and often it goes with jazz; beats me).

And within about 30 seconds, your curry order hits the counter (after the rice man fills your plate and the sauce man does his artistic little thing to get the glop from the ladle onto your rice. Division of labor.). The basic curry here is weird - it's lighter-colored than most, quite sweet, and studded with ground pork. It's also quite tasty if you like declasse curry, and oh boy I do. You should pretty much be able to tell from the picture if you'll like this place - if it reminds you too much of Two Girls One Cup, don't go.

Your options for toppings cover a range of fried nuggets and slabs, plus wieners. Pork cutlet seemed to be the most popular choice, but I've done that and wanted to try something different, so this is the other popular option - fried shumai. The fry is so thick and fluffy and crunchy that it's hard to notice the shumai inside; I couldn't tell if they were pork or shrimp or crab or what. Maybe they were fry-filled fried shumai.

As long as we're here for another minute, let's talk about the condiments. There are containers of chili powder on the counter. I don't recommend them, but the guy next to me does. I just found that it didn't integrate or even match with the style of curry. If they simmered it in for an hour or three, I'm sure it would be good. As a topping, not so much.

The pickles, however, are awesome. I love this style of sweet pickle, and they have buckets of them all along the counter. A dream come true, really, because my main concern with these is eating up everything that's in whatever dainty container is provided, or else how to use the little tongs to get a solid pile onto my plate. Man, these were good.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Carp Okonomiyaki, Kanda (カープ お好み焼き 東京支店)

The northeast corner of Kanda continues to yield occasional delights, despite years (years, I say) of exploration and (recently) relatively frequent bouts of despair at finding new, good things.

Carp is obviously not new - it's well-used and a bit greasy. But you'd be greasy too if your main feature was a griddle, and all your food was fried on it. I can't really imagine what you'd look like if your main feature was a griddle though.

Is this place famous? A film crew came in while I was eating to get some location-y footage for that night's broadcast. Made me feel good, because if it's famous enough to film, it must be tasty enough to eat. The staff took it in stride - basically " Whaddya want us to do?"

Actually that's a point - maybe the staff is really from Hiroshima like it says on the sign. They were very southern in their lack of Tokyo politesse.

Here's what was under the camera's inspection. It's an okonomiyaki, and if you never saw one before, now you know. To make one, you're going to start with a thin pancake, a crepe if you will, and on top of that put a big pile of noodles (they have udon or soba; I thought soba would be weird so I got udon, but I regret that because soba means ramen in this case), and on top of that put a big pile of cabbage, and some green onion, and three strips of bacon. Fry until hot and softened.

Flip over and cover with sauce and powdered seaweed. Leave on the griddle while you eat so it stays hot.

Here's what it looks like inside after you cut it. Really, it's hard to explain why these are so darn tasty, but they are. Darn tasty they are. The Hiroshima style with embedded noodles is really nice too, better than without.

I thought I was pretty clever, finding this place. Then I came back to the office and told a colleague who really likes high volume junk food. I said "I had okonomiyaki in Kanda," and he said "Oh, was it Carp? Did you get double-noodles?" I'm glad I didn't know it was an option.

Meanwhile, on the street near Carp, "Natural Hand Comfort". tee hee.

I've got a card on my desk that a colleague gave me for a birthday years ago. It says "YOU ARE ONLY YOUNG ONCE, BUT YOU CAN STAY IMMATURE INDEFINITELY."

It says "-OGDEN NASH-" after that, so it's not like someone at Hallmark is wonderfully creative.

If you wanted to eat at the source, drink from the font, that sort of thing, you could visit the original shop in Hiroshima's 'Okonomiyaki Village' (since 1976). Looks like this one is better though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MaMa, Kanda (中国料理 媽媽)

There are days when I just think "Chinese". They are few, and they are far between - only twice a year, maybe. This was one of them.

After a lot of walking around in a dangerously dithering state (all the untried places looked crappy), I came upon MaMa.

And it turned out really well! I interrupted the setup for the staff lunch (it was almost 3 PM), but they got busy with the wok and fried up some chicken with cashews for me. I loved how they fried the chicken first, and also how the bowl of soup was their ramen base and not the usual starch-thickened egg drop soup.

Since it's nice to have at least one interesting element in a post, I present this sign. While it's creepy on it's own, it's mainly a katakana joke for those who can think that way.

"OMG, you are such a dolk," that sort of thing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Aarti, Akihabara (アールティ,神田佐久間河岸)

Cast a wide net, that's what I always say. Actually I never say that, but it was well worth walking the 20+ minutes up north to get to this place (east of Akihabara). I snapped a quick picture when I realized that the little red and yellow blob on the crappy skinny building wedged in there was a sign for my target.

Which was on the second floor of this little building, above a...I don't know what they're selling, but it looks cheap. Any time they say 'Get!!' as an encouragement to buy, I cringe.

Now, you can usually judge an Indian restaurant by the quality of their signage. Like the old La Loggia in Roppongi, who kept on the Italian theme long after they were making nothing but curry and naan. This fat white man with his white-man cake promises great things. Great Indian things.

As does the blessing of the elephant god in the stairwell.

I don't mean to mock, really I don't. The soft slap-slap of the chef making fresh naan let me know things were authentic, and one bite of chicken curry was enough to confirm that things were tasty. This is possibly the first time I've ever enjoyed a piece of tandoori chicken in a restaurant in Japan - they're always so dry and tasteless. And the curry was truly a cut above.

Thanks Ganesh!